Book Review: The Forgotten Faith
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Book information: Philip LeMasters, The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), xii + 152 pages.
In his introduction to The Forgotten Faith, Fr. Philip LeMasters, an Antiochian Orthodox priest and convert from Protestantism (“Baptist to Presbyterian to Episcopalian”), provides essential context for understanding how the book is meant to be read. “The origins of this book,” writes LeMasters, “are in brief informal talks that I have given to visiting classes from Abilene Christian University, Hardin-Simmons University, and McMurry University, which have come to St. Luke”—his parish—“in order to learn a bit about Eastern Orthodox Christianity.” He continues, “Those institutions are, respectively, Church of Christ, Baptist, and United Methodist, but their students come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds.” Thus, while he writes, “I have attempted to find points of contact to enable any reader to understand why the members of our Church believe, worship, and live as they do,” remembering that his visitors come from Protestant institutions and that Protestantism is a part of his own spiritual background proves essential to rightly reading The Forgotten Faith, which in this light offers a helpful introduction to American Orthodoxy for interested Protestants.
As a convert myself with an Evangelical upbringing and Reformed theological education, I can sympathize with the tone of the book. There was a time when it might have been just what I needed, in fact, to assuage any worries I may have had about Orthodoxy. Today, LeMasters’s concerns are not my own, however, and this subjective reality certainly colored my reading. That said, no doubt many would find the book to present the Orthodox Church in a refreshingly accessible and attractive light.
The book breaks down into the following chapters:
- The Burning Bush: God Is Who He Is
- Salvation, Sex, and Food
- Mary: Don’t Be Afraid!
- Football, Liturgical Worship, and Real Life
- Fools, Monks, and Martyrs
- Constantine and the Culture Wars
Throughout, LeMasters does not present arguments so much as observations—the book is not a treatise but, as indicated above, a sort of guided tour of Eastern Christianity. Fr. Philip has a gift for presenting this foreign faith in terms of food and football—everyday pastimes to which the average Texan (like Fr. Philip himself) could easily relate.
Further, it may be better to say that the book is “a guided tour of Eastern Christianity” as appropriated by former American Protestants. Rather than a weakness, I find this to be a strength. One could complain that “cradle” Orthodox from other countries might find the faith LeMasters describes to be equally foreign, but it reflects a certain strand of Orthodoxy in the American context, one that represents a significant, concrete reality that continues to attract converts today. “It is worth noting,” writes LeMasters, “that many of the Orthodox priests in America, and a majority in some branches such as our Antiochian archdiocese, have entered the Church as adults on similar spiritual journeys. In American Orthodoxy today, our family fits right in.” The Forgotten Faith gives a fascinating glimpse into the perspectives and concerns of such converts.
Among the book’s other strengths, I actually found the fifth chapter—by far the most bizarre and likely the least attractive to the book’s intended readers—to be the most interesting. In it, LeMasters highlights the 6th century Eastern saint Symeon the “holy fool.” St. Symeon and those “fools for Christ” like him throughout history embody a sort of Christian continuation of the Cynic tradition of Greek philosophy, the most famous adherent perhaps being the eccentric Diogenes of Sinope. LeMasters gives an excellent sampling of the unique discipline that St. Symeon embraced:
Symeon began his ministry of prophetic folly by dragging a dead dog by his belt as he entered the city of Emesa (the present-day city of Homs in Syria). The very next day, which was a Sunday, he disrupted a church service by throwing nuts at the burning candles; he then ran to the pulpit and threw nuts at women in the congregation. When he was chased out of the church, Symeon turned over tables belonging to pastry chefs … He was nearly beaten to death for this disruptive behavior …
On some Sundays, Symeon actually wore a string of sausage around his neck like a deacon’s stole; he would eat sausages all day, dipping them in mustard from a bucket that he carried. These actions were likely highly offensive to the sensibilities of the established Christian community….
Perhaps it is merely a sign of my own weakness (or perversity), like watching a train wreck for the entertainment value, but I find St. Symeon’s story to be both comical and inspiring. On the one hand, as Fr. Philip points out, St. Symeon did these things knowing how off-putting they would be—a prophetic witness against the idolization of even good customs and mores. On the other hand, St. Symeon and other holy fools, however disturbing some details of their lives may be, give me hope that there is a place in the Body of Christ for even the most eccentric members of society, a special calling for which they alone are perhaps uniquely suited.
The introductory orientation of the book does have its drawbacks, however. Fr. Philip’s final chapter, for example, “Constantine and the Culture Wars,” touches on such a wide variety of social concerns—abortion, same-sex marriage, poverty, war, healthcare, and so on—that the content comes off too shallow given the seriousness of the subjects at hand. Furthermore, the flow feels a bit erratic, jumping from one subject to the next with no break in the text or clear transition, following a mysterious sort of ADHD associative logic. Lastly, and most unfortunately (says the editor), the book contains many typos, especially in this last chapter. The quality and readability of the book would have greatly benefited from the eye of a careful copyeditor.
That said, LeMasters does a good job in acknowledging the line between principles of faith and morality on the one hand, and prudential judgments that may not be as clear-cut on the other. He does not give the impression of advocating any specific political program; indeed, he explicitly disavows such a project:
Religious groups that are strongly identified with politics risk becoming so entangled in debates shaped by interest groups that their distinctive witness is obscured. To give the impression of being merely a political party at prayer is a good way to make people think that the church has little to say to the world that the world does not already know on its own terms.
He does not use this as an excuse, however, to disengage from political life. He only highlights that in applying the teachings of the Church to our present, political context, we ought not to expect any concrete embodiment of our ideals, and we should be wary of any person or group that makes such a claim.
In the end, I would recommend The Forgotten Faith for those Protestants looking for a tour of American Orthodoxy in terms they can understand and that address their concerns. More broadly, it is an interesting icon of one particular instantiation of Orthodoxy in the West, one that includes many academics—such as Fr. Philip—whose work, deeply informed by this once-forgotten faith, continues to influence the state of scholarship on theology, philosophy, history, and other disciplines. While LeMasters’s book is not for everyone, it offers a brief and accessible introduction to one variety of convert spirituality within American Orthodoxy today and accomplishes his modest goal: “to reflect a few rays of light from the East that I hope my readers will find interesting and beneficial.”